Stony the Road – 5/5 Stars
Yet another book that presented answers to questions in part, but mostly added to my reading list, this slight book by Henry Louis Gates Jr. was written to support a documentary and to provide additional resources, analysis, and insight into the post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods in the US.
For a more robust understanding of the Reconstruction era, Gates points us to WEB Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, which was one of the first extensive histories of Reconstruction to fight back against Lost Cause racism in history, as well as Eric Foner’s more recent book Reconstruction which continues in this vein. Both book fight against first half a century, then a full century of misinformation and disinformation as racist justification for Jim Crow, racist justification of Lost Cause, and racist revisionism in the history of Reconstruction. In addition to linking to these longer texts, the strength of this shorter book by Gates involves the recent discoveries and important questions of the 30 years since Foner’s book, as well as the literary and cultural studies angles that Gates is expert in. He also brings to bear other important texts, like Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, in order connect additional important disciplines (biology, history, social sciences), and also updates the last 30 years of racist framing of the Civil War.
Lathe of Heaven – 4/5 Stars
I was unfair to this book the first time I read it and it was a lot more enjoyable, and better, a lot scarier and freaky my second time through. George Orr is sent to a psychiatrist where we discover that Orr has been dreaming “effectively” meaning that what happens in his dreams affect and change reality. This means that he alone knows about what is and what was, except for the ways in which his sessions with the psychiatrist help to record that changes.
This book has that kind of existential terror of a timeloop or alternate reality book does, and like the best among them, the over all simple structure of the narrative, happening almost exclusively from the psychiatrist’s couch adds a terror to them because of how normal and pedestrian the complete eradication of reality as we know it is.
Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? – 4/5 Star
A pretty diverse set of essays that take a few general forms, while never adhering strictly to any particular form. Jesse McCarthy is an African-American studies professor at Harvard, with a PhD (I think in literature) from Princeton. He often writes for leftish cultural publications like N+1 and the like. I mention this background as a way to situate the book and the variety of topics and approaches within. There’s several essays about art, music, literature, and more general cultural questions. The approaches vary from personal essays (similar to autofiction or critical/personal essays), some that are more literary scholarship, and more that are intellectual, if academic-lite in terms of scholarship. I found a lot that I liked with the collection, and a few things that I disagreed with, but generally engaging. It’s funny because it became clear that however different our experiences might have been, I was definitely in grad school at the same time as McCarthy as so so many of the reference points are the same.
Middle Passage – 4/5 Stars
This is a book that I was interested in for a long time, but never got around to read. It’s also a book that its title works to create a presumption on my part about its plot, one that is both true and not true at the same time. The result is an unexpected story that is a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be.
The book is presented as a set of diary entries written by Rutherford Calhoun, a freed Black man who finds himself in some recent arrears. This debt now due, he finds himself in a different kind of problem when a young woman decides that she’ll pay off the debt, if he marries her. He’s kind of horrified by this idea, and doesn’t really know how he’s going to deal with it when he meets a man about to go off to sea getting drunk in a local tavern. He decides to swipe the drunk man’s papers and take up on board the seagoing vessel both to escape the debt and the solution to the debt. The book then follows him aboard a slave ship where he becomes a kind of middleman between the slaves and the sailors (especially important when the slaves revolt).
The book highlights the uncomfortable middle position that slavery as an institution in particular, and unjust institutions in general place people, especially people who don’t really have much power or leverage against. I am reminded in part of the stories of both Olaudah Equiano and Denmark Vesey as I read this novel, as well as the later James McBride novel The Good Lord Bird (both for the content of the story and the lively and sometimes funny tone of both books).
How to Hide an Empire – 4/5 stars
What I particularly liked about this book, aside from the content and the history, both of which are written (mostly) very compellingly and argued equally as so, is a very clearly stated thesis at the beginning. This isn’t a book simply telling an unheard of story, like a lot of popular history books do, but looking at very recognizable history with a new kind of lens. Specifically Immerwahr begins us with the image of the United States as a set of boundaries, but quite literally an image. This he calls the logoform of the US, and it’s more or less what you would imagine if you were to visualize the shape of the US, with the familiar continental form, and then Alaska and Hawaii floating somewhere in space and representing some vague amount of space in comparison to the contiguous states. In recent years, Puerto Rico has been much more centered in conversations about US territory, but unless you’re taking a Sporcle quiz, it would likely stop there, leaving out additional properties and protectorates like American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, etc.
Using this image as the more or less expected public consciousness of the United States, Immerwahr takes us back to the attacks of December 7, 1941 and the speeches and policies derived from the Japanese military attacks. Specifically he discusses the use of Hawaii as a clear stand-in for US soil (a territory at the time) and ignoring or erasure of other targets like the Philippines (also US soil at the time). Framed this way, and the use of Pearl Harbor as the launching ground for the US war effort, and certainly aided by Germany’s declaration of war the following day, the US began in earnest to join the war. But which war specifically? The war in Europe first and foremost. Great news if you’re the UK, less great if you’re the Philippines, which would eventually fall to Japan, and consequently become independent partially as a consequence down the line.
This rereading of familiar history, looked at through the lens of expanding the definition (or more so correctly applying the definition) of US territory is the premise of the rest of the book. From there we get a more historical building of the various parts of the US empire. This works in two distinct sections: one, focusing on actual land, and two, focusing on cultural, financial, and geopolitical dominance.
The book is a good primer in studies of the US empire, while also making the case of US empire (sorry, I mean that it makes sure to address the question: is the US an empire? Was it ever? Is it still? — as opposed to simply assuming our agreement).
We had a little real estate problem – 4/5 Stars
As much as any other book, this book reminds me of Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria Jr. I don’t this is accidental, as this book references that book and Deloria Jr. numerous times. While the book is ostensibly a book about the history of Native comedy in the Americas (primarily the US, but not exclusively), there’s a more direct and poignant central thesis: that humor is and always has been a hugely important component to Native peoples in the Americas. This is not a shocking argument at all, as I can’t really name a single people who ever existed for which humor isn’t important, but instead a reaction against two very predominant portrayals of Native Americans in US history and US culture — deeply reverent and serious, and too sad and pathetic for humor. Not that there hasn’t been plenty to be serious about or plenty of sadness to go around, but the portrayals themselves. The sadness angle is also frustrating in part because it’s employed by so-called well meaning people, but is still cultural erasure nonetheless. But of course anyone who’s read almost any Native American contemporary literature knows how funny it often is.
The book focuses on three main threads: contemporary comedians doing their thing (with a wide variety of diversity among them); two very important cultural influences both historically (Will Rodgers) and more recently (Charlie Hill); the relevant if truncated history of Native peoples in the Americas.
My only criticism of the book is that I wish it had more specific quoting of the various comedy it references. There’s still a lot, but not nearly as much as I would like. I found myself needing to have Youtube open as a constant source to check out the various references.
Dreamland – 4/5 Stars
A book that I had planning to read for awhile, but because it was directly referenced in the acknowledgements for a recent read, Winter Counts, I pushed it up the list. This book covers the “Opiate Epidemic” like many before and after it. Like those books, and any book on such a complex topic it has to make some choices.
The central image and the title comes from a large public swimming pool in West Virginia that stands in as the promises made to many Americans (not Blacks, women, and Latinos, obviously, but many!) in the 20th century, and then how various threads of capitalism and globalization would fail them and exploit them. The book then focuses on what Quinones suggests (less uncomfortably than you might imagine) as atypical communities to support thriving heroin trades. This mostly means towns and small cities where there isn’t a large Mexican immigrant population, there isn’t a mob run drug trade, or a Black gang drug trade. Those features are more prominent in large cities like Baltimore, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. And as much as America pretends to be, are largely meritocratic and democratic in their equal opportunities. But the specific make-up of their underworld drug trade is particular to each city/region. In these small towns, though, what we find is a thriving heroin trade, specifically black tar heroin, and a group of drug dealers that all come from the same small region in Mexico. The throughline for all of this is that this specific small drug cartel (although it’s run more like an underground cell system) works like a corporation or franchise model. The dealers are very customer service friendly, they deliver, they don’t use their own supply, the heroin is cheap, and it is potent.
So that’s one significant portion of the book. Another has to do with specific science and history of opium/poppy molecules. One has to do with addiction and dopesickness. And then of course the other most important factor is the deregulation of opiates, the advertising blitz in the 70s-90s, the specific overprescribing and pill-mills and pain clinics.
It doesn’t focus on all of these in huge details, and spends most of its time with pill mills and the heroin trade. Like the other prominent books in this mini-genre, this covers a lot of bases, but not all of them. It’s such a complex history that reading multiple texts is necessary.
Mismeasure of Man – 5/5 Stars
Imagine how disgusting your book must be for someone to review it, hate it, and revise and update a book they wrote 15 years earlier to make sure that your book is rightfully skewered. That’s the position of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, a book I still see trotted out every so often in internet circles as a way to abuse Black people, often in articles where a Black person has been successful at something. The very use of the book is racist of course, but so are the intentions of that book and every single use it’s ever been put to in politics. Even if the book were 100% correct and undeniable (in terms of its analysis of data), the very question the book seems to be suggesting is still racist.
So this book is not about The Bell Curve, but as Gould explains in the revised introduction, this book basically had already debunked The Bell Curve before it was just a racist glimmer in a racist eye. The reason is that the arguments of that book and lots of others in both recent and not so recent publishing is based on faulty science, faulty procedures, but worse, a set of conclusions held a priori in search of evidence to back it up.
This book takes up many of the most famous versions of this search: to quantify intelligence as a set factor, and then to use that factor for social engineering.
Stephen Jay Gould addresses the questions related to his own lack of expertise and training in history and social science by arguing that his training as a scientist allows him to carefully look at historical data, look at methodology, and to look as the documents connected with the data and evidence to weigh on the conclusions being reached.
Necronomicon – 3/5 Stars
Reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man at the same time as HP Lovecraft’s most famous tales was not on purpose, but there was some unintentional crossover. Lovecraft is of course quite famous for his science-tinged racist bullshit and in this collection it’s mostly NOT present except perhaps in the story “The Terror at Red Hook”.
That’s not to say that this book isn’t replete with plenty of other problems. For me Lovecraft is like the Velvet Underground, as famous for what he inspired as what he actually did. That’s a little harsh on the Velvet Underground, as I really enjoy many of their songs. But for Lovecraft, plenty of people can cite different things that he inspired or brought into the cultural consciousness: Cthulu, the Elder Ones, Eldritch Horrors, etc. There’s the Metallica song, there’s the video games like Eternal Darkness and Bloodborne, there’s plenty of imitators and people inspired by him like House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. But beyond that, how many casual readers know much of the actual stories? I was surprised how not familiar most of these stories were for me, except “The Call of Cthulu”. I was also surprised how many of these stories were the exact same story told a slightly different way.
Black Flags, Blue Waters – 2/5 Stars
The exciting swashbuckling story of pirates in the Americas! told in the driest and mostly perfunctory way possible. There’s been a rise in pirate interest in the last two decades (not that it ever waned) and while this book does a perfectly ok job at relating the stories of the pirates in and around the Americas, it doesn’t do much to reckon with the questions about history that these pirates raise. Instead, what I suggest is to track down a few of the source this book references, especially those by Marcus Reddiker (as well as Hakim Bey) to better understand some of the interesting questions surrounding the history.
The Iliad – 5/5 Stars
I dunno, man, how do you review The Iliad?
For me, the most interesting parts of rereading this comes not from the actual epic itself but from the introduction by Caroline Alexander. Some things I didn’t know: the Iliad is only one part of a series of works, all lost, that tell different parts. So even though we get the climax of the war, we don’t get the more full version, while also explaining why we only come at the end.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – 4/5 Stars
I was supposed to read this for a class in grad school but I never did. I can’t remember why, but the class was about the US frontier and Manifest Destiny in literature. This class took us past the west coast, once the frontier closed, into the Pacific and beyond. That’s why we started taking our colonies like the Philppines, messing with Japan, messing with Hawaii, etc etc. Twain was there for all that, and would eventually write in reaction to and against US involvement in Cuba and other places around the globe.
In this book, he gives us Hank Morgan, mediocre American through and through, who can engineer and tinker, and when he is sent into the past, finding himself in the dark ages in England, in the time of King Arthur, he begins to realize his 19th century knowledge can make him almost a god in this backward time and place. And so Twain does what he does, skewers. He skewers Americans for their ability to believe that history began the moment they open their eyes, for older European countries for this adherence to stale traditions and customs, and religion among other targets.
Also this is the Nick Offerman audio version, which is wonderful of course.
Whores for Gloria – 2/5 Stars
If I understand correctly William Vollmann’s first novel (which I’ve tried to read twice and not made it past the first two pages) is an exercise in literary glut that looks toward forebears like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and the like.
Then this second novel swings around the other direction. We are treated to a slim volume, a series of stories and vignettes that exist in the sex work demimonde as a vet looks for a prostitute who has the potential to change his life. It’s not a “hooker with a heart of gold” story, but more so, a sex worker with the secret of life story. It’s not great, if at times, does some interesting things.
Celebration – 2/5 Stars
This is first time that the schtick of a Harry Crews novel felt unappealing from page one. We’re at a retirement trailer community in Florida and there’s a local sexpot who shows up to disrupt the works. She’s already killed one man with sleeping with him, and who knows what’s next. What normally carries us through Harry Crews novels, a powerful if disgusting momentum struggles in this one and barely manages to catch us, and worst, this is one of his longer books.
A Feast of Snakes – 5/5 Stars
This is one of those novels that I absolutely love and cannot for the life of me tell you is any good or not. Part of the issue, like with all other Harry Crews novels, the main character is so despicable (racist and violent) that you can’t and don’t root for him.
Joe Lon Mackey never made it. He’s from the small town of Mystic, GA and he was the star of his high school football team. He made the big plays and he dated the head cheerleader. Now, a few years on, he owns a local liquor store (in a dry county), he’s got a wife and a few kids (none of whom he loves), and not much else. It’s time again for Mystic to hold its annual rattlesnake festival and Joe Lon is partially in charge of rounding up the snakes. There’ll be a hunt, a pageant, and a festival. He’s most interested in meeting back up with his high school girlfriend, who cheers for Alabama to see what that’s about.
And like a lot of Harry Crews novels, he’s at the beginning of a spiral that will carry him through to the very last page of the novel.
If you’ve seen the movie, you could stop there and be good. There’s both some cosmetic changes made to the story that matter little, and extraneous stuff cut out that make the film so much stronger. The biggest difference comes from how much more the novel is about changing mores than the film ends up being. We get some of that, but the novel involves several long scenes in which Reagan’s mother talks about a new upcoming movie role where she’s going to play a campus official fighting back against nihilistic campus protestors (yawn) but not jiving with the role too much. There’s also a little more about campus culture at Georgetown, as the book, like the movie takes place right on the edge.
In fact, one time my friend and I went to the Tombs and he pretended (almost?) to throw me down the stairs. The other major difference is the story of the older priest, whose story needing updating when they got Max von Sydow to play him. He’s American through and through here.
Something that did occur to me reading this compared to seeing the movie is how the title is “The Exorcist” and not the “Exorcism” which is more clear in the book as we’re focused on the way in which the changing more post Vatican II made things more difficult. I think the movie handles that better anyway.
The audiobook, but the way, is read by Blatty who’s got a real 1970s raspy breathiness about it that is the right tone for the book.